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President Obama, you are no Ronald Reagan. And I mean that in a bad way.

From the National Journal (h/t Irmaly) here is a report on Obama thinking around the tax cut deal with McConnell:

He said it was hard to change the narrative after 30 years of small-government rhetoric and policies dating back to Ronald Reagan.

Obama’s difficulties with setting the agenda, or dictating the political "narrative," have been a topic of avid debate. In the past, Obama has expressed a wary admiration for President Reagan and his ability to change the narrative.

That was a contrast to the eight years of President Clinton, Obama added cuttingly. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he said.

Ah, if only Obama really have the courage of Reagan's convictions to be an agent of change.

I am calling b.s. on this excuse.

Reagan actually tried hard. He/His People went out on a limb to sell their ideology. They stuck with it, even when, at the time, it was called extremist and a political loser. Indeed, even when Reagan did compromise in fact, he kept to the narrative.

By contrast Obama and most of the Democrats never tried to change the narrative.  

In Obama's case there is no reason to believe that he ever wanted to.
Once the election was won, having campaigned on that whole hopey changey thing, look at whom he chose for his economic team.  In fact, as some of the more recent campaign books make clear, Obama was somebody the Washington establishment was quite comfortable with all along. To not change anything important was important.  All the more so after the meltdown.  The Washington consensus had to abide. Edwards’ populism was dangerous. Obama could offer the appearance of change, but with minimal substance.  Once the original economic team was announced, along with the Bernanke reappointment, it was clear nothing serious could be expected in terms of changing the message.

And, jeez, after all the case was already made for him!

After the events of 2006-2008, to say nothing of job stagnation under eight years of Bush, recurrent financial scandals from deregulation and lack of real oversight (from S&Ls, to Enron, Worldcom, to Countrywide and Gold-in-Sacks).  And most of all the ever since Reagan return to Gilded Age inequality and lack of income growth for most Americans.  Thirty years of slow proven failure, followed by three years of explosive failure. And President Obama could not make the case... because he never tried.

Even when Reagan compromised in fact, he kept to the narrative. Obama is the opposite... refusing to make the strong case for progressive liberal populist economic agenda... even when he tries to do a good policy.

Parallel to the National Journal piece there is an interesting piece by Alterman in The Nation.  Altermnan was part of a contingent of liberal journalists who had a sit-down with newly elected Senator Obama in 2005.

Long before the Wall Street crash, when housing prices were still high and most middle-class Americans felt themselves to be on relatively secure ground, Obama was looking for a way to address the problems of workers being undercut and eventually displaced by global competition. He knew how to talk to people in church; it was outside the locked factory gates in towns where the jobs had moved overseas that he felt himself stymied."

Gee... no particular message or policies, just a vague sense of there is a problem... but no willingness to commit to either a strong message or solutions.  Again, by contrast with Reagan and the conservative movement:

if you ask most Americans what conservatives believe will fix whatever's wrong with America at any given time, they can give you a simple, coherent response: lower taxes, less government, more "freedom." It may be wrong. It may benefit only the rich. But it is easy to understand and repeat, particularly when billions of dollars have been invested to make it appear plausible.

Indeed, the entire edifice of supply-side economics was constructed with this goal in mind. Neoconservative pundit Irving Kristol, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, among others, made this their cause throughout much of the 1970s and '80s, with often astonishing results. They helped channel hundreds of millions of dollars, later mushrooming into billions, into the newly created conservative counter-establishment. These groups and others championed the arguments of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and his American counterpart, monetarist Milton Friedman, to replace the global Keynesian consensus with their own. Their ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new quasi-academic and political journals and publishing houses, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our politics and culture.

And now we are getting the pre-signalled capitulation on Social Security, in return for needlessly caving in on the Republican debt ceiling default threat.

Social security... you gotta be kidding; Krugman says:

this is absolutely the wrong place to cut if you’re serious about fiscal issues. It’s where the money isn’t; and in terms of securing Social Security itself, it’s deeply illogical: in order to avoid the possibility of future benefit cuts, we’re cutting future benefits.

It’s not just that progressive activists would sit on their hands in disgust; Republicans would, inevitably, run ads attacking Democrats for cutting Social Security. You think that’s crazy? They just won the House in part by accusing Democrats of cutting Medicare.

Anyway, let’s hope it’s not for real. Otherwise, Obama will go down in history as the progressive darling who destroyed the legacy of the New Deal.

But Dean Baker offers the alternative scenario President Obama could take:

debt default would be a very bad situation and one that we absolutely should try to avoid. But the day after the default, the country would still have the same capital stock and infrastructure, the same skilled labor force and the same technical knowledge as it did the day before the default. In other words, the ability of our economy to produce more than $15 trillion in goods and services each year will not have been affected.

One thing that would not be around the day after a default is Wall Street. The default would wipe out the value the assets of the Wall Street banks, sending Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest into bankruptcy. The recovery for the economy from such a situation will be difficult, but the shareholders of the Wall Street banks would be wiped out and their top executives unemployed.

For this reason, the threat of a default is a gun pointed most directly at Wall Street. Given the power of Wall Street over Congress, is inconceivable that they would ever let the Republicans pull the trigger.

This means that if President Obama is prepared to take the right and popular position of supporting Social Security and Medicare, he will win. This is both good policy and great politics. The public just has to force President Obama to stand up and show some leadership.

The other deal making that seems to be on the table is tax reform. Yes we need. We need to get rid of the corporate loopholes and not just to pay for the 9/11 workers' health care costs.  We need both increased progressivity and simplification. Simplify but not flatten.  Again, this needs Democrats willing to stand-up for a change in the narrative.

I expect the Republicans to stick with their message of plutocracy.  After they and their buddies got what they wanted these past 30 plus years since Reagan set the narrative:
 
Income inequality - top 10%

inequality top percents compared

top 0.01%


So that is the change we got with Reaganite Free Market Fudmentalism established as the narrative.

But if Obama is going to explicitly invoke Reagan as a successful change agent to be admired (at least for his success in doing the wrong that he believed in), well then, we can hope Obama might wish to emulate Reagan the change agent.  But, you know, in the other direction.  Not for social security cuts and more regressive taxes.

It is just that I really do hope that more Democrats, including the President of Hopey Changey would at least try to offer an alternative narrative and policy.

Or as Krugman pointed out yesterday:

Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything — yet they now dominate the political scene more thoroughly than ever.

How did that happen?



We need a narrative change.

Even if it is hard.


Update 1:

I guess this is an opportunity to invoke the old FDR line about asking the left to make him do it.  Even if he and the WH keep engaging in hippy bashing, we can still pull from the left; at best a real uprising by the progessive populist base; at the very least longterm Overton Window narrative change.  

See also my diary from the primaries and for those of us who never expected too much from an individual politician, how we endorse the movement that Obama represented during the campaign (more than Obama the man).


Update 2: Similarly from The Nationover the past few months:

The quickly congealing conventional wisdom claims that President Obama tried to do too much and was too liberal. Wrong. The reality is that the administration and conservative Democrats were too timid in tackling the dire economic crisis inherited from George W. Bush. The public was alienated not because of Obama's overreaching but because his team hasn't fought aggressively enough against well-funded and entrenched interests. For thirty years the working and middle classes have seen their incomes stagnate as the top 1 percent have accrued a staggering percentage of the nation's wealth. By rescuing instead of reforming the big banks, the White House economic team, led by Wall Street–tainted Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, ceded populist energy to the Tea Party and its corporate funders. The inadequacy of the president's recovery program, largely a result of concessions to the GOP, became a political and economic catastrophe for the White House.

In the end, the Democrats suffered because the anemic economy hasn't been generating enough jobs—and the president failed to convince voters he was piloting a consistent course that would turn things around. Furthermore, the absence of a forceful and sustained explanation of how conservative policies have failed and will continue to fail enabled a right-wing narrative of empty slogans, fearmongering and outright mendacity to gain traction. Obama's decision to abandon his smart argument about building a new foundation for the economy and his premature embrace of deficit reduction only left voters confused about the White House's program for recovery.

The president must lay out a clear and bold plan to create jobs, jobs and more jobs and get the economy going—and fight with conviction for those plans against anyone standing in the way. He should take the advice of the more than 300 economists who have urged his administration not to focus prematurely on deficit reduction.

As he made clear in his first postelection press conference, the president remains committed to a politics of civility and common ground. Fine, but if he meets with Republican obstruction, Obama should channel Harry Truman and come out fighting against a know-nothing and do-nothing GOP. If he's determined to pursue a politics of common ground, why not define it as one of economic dignity and social justice, one that ends the corruption and special entitlements that have allowed the very richest to amass great fortunes while the vast majority of Americans struggle to make ends meet? Common ground, if it means making the government more responsive to the needs of the majority. Common ground, if it means public investment in people, in our deteriorating infrastructure, in research and development that serves human needs and rebuilds America's competitiveness in the world. Common ground, if it means ending a wasteful and destructive war in Afghanistan. Common ground, if it means campaign finance reform that levels the playing field so ordinary Americans' voices aren't drowned out by more and more covert and corporate money. And common ground, if it means listening to and remobilizing a base that is the heart and soul of a renewed and revived Democratic Party. A rising American electorate—young people, Latinos, African-Americans, single women, union members—would be an effective counterweight to the assaults of an emboldened GOP and its corporate funders.

The extremist GOP may have won control of the House, but it does not have a mandate to dismantle government. According to many polls, majorities across party lines want government to work, and they support a range of reforms to protect them against economic hardship and the marketplace. That includes retirement security, education, consumer protection, investment in infrastructure—but not tax cuts for the rich, subsidies for companies that offshore US jobs, elimination of the Education Department or privatization of Social Security and Medicare.

The nation confronts urgent problems. It is still in the throes of an economic crisis. Poverty and inequality are growing, the middle class is shrinking. President Obama should seize the moment to show that he is committed to standing with Americans who have been shafted. This is not a time to retreat. This is a time for the politics of conviction that Obama has said he believes in. Yes you can, Mr. President.

On bipartisanship, the president seems to think that cooperation requires self-abasement. He apologized to the obstructionist Republican leadership for not reaching out, a gesture reciprocated with another poke in the eye. He chose to meet with the hyper-partisan Chamber of Commerce after it ran one of the most dishonest independent campaigns in memory. He appears to be courting Roger Altman, a former investment banker, for his economic team, leavening the Goldman Sachs flavor of his administration with a salty Lehman Brothers veteran.

On the economy, the president has abandoned what Americans are focused on - jobs - to embrace what the Beltway elites care about - deficits. His freeze of federal workers' pay, of more symbolic than deficit-reducing value, only reinforced right-wing tripe: that federal employees are overpaid; that overspending is our problem, as opposed to inane tax cuts for the top end; that we should impose austerity now, instead of working to get the economy going.

He appears to be headed toward supporting cuts in Social Security and Medicare and irresponsible reductions in domestic investment. And he's on the verge of kowtowing to Republican bluster and cutting a deal to extend George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich in exchange (one hopes) for extending unemployment insurance and possibly getting a vote on the New START treaty.

This is political self-immolation. Blue-collar workers abandoned Democrats in large numbers in the fall; wait until they learn what the trade deal means for them. Seniors went south, probably because of Republican lies about cuts in Medicare; wait until anyone over 40 who's lost their savings hears about Alan Simpson's plan to take it to the "greedy geezers." The $60 billion each year in Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans could pay for universal preschool for America's children, or tuition and board for half of America's college students.

The stakes are much higher than the distant election. The president has suggested unconvincingly that he'd prefer to be a successful one-term president than a two-term president who didn't get anything done. But there are other alternatives. If the president continues on his current course, we're looking at a failed one-term presidency that the nation cannot afford.

Forget about electoral mandates or campaign promises. This president has a historic mandate. Just as Abraham Lincoln had to lead the nation from slavery and Franklin Roosevelt from the Depression, this president must lead the nation from the calamitous failures of three decades of conservative dominance. This requires beginning to reverse the perverse tax policies that have contributed to gilded-age inequality and starved the government of resources needed for vital investments. This demands correcting destabilizing global imbalances, laying a new foundation for reviving American manufacturing and shackling financial speculation. It means ensuring the United States leads rather than lags in the green industrial revolution. And it requires unwinding the self-destructive military adventures abroad. The president must strengthen America's basic social contract in a global economy, not weaken it.

This daunting project is not a matter of ambition or appetite - or even unconscious Kenyan socialism. It is the necessary function of a progressive president elected in the wake of calamitous conservative misrule. Every entrenched corporate and financial interest stands in the way; it is easier to take a less confrontational path.

This isn't about conventional politics. This is simply about the fate and future of our country. This president has a clear and imperative historic mandate. If he shirks it, he risks more than failing to get reelected. He risks a failed presidency.

But too often, this president is so singularly focused on seeking common ground that he fails to define his—and our—principles. The tax cut deal is just the most recent example. Obama began those negotiations telegraphing his endgame, with eyes set unwaveringly on resolution. He chose not to passionately articulate his values, or to define the GOP's, and in the aftermath of the battle, he refused to explain where it's all meant to lead us.

This, he might conclude, is a minor complaint from a dismissible left. But the truth is, without a president who is able—and willing—to lay out a clear, strong and principled argument, without a president who will stand up for the ideals he ran on, even as he seeks resolution, the progressive worldview becomes muted, and the conservative worldview validated.

Obama has reinforced the notion, not by compromise but by relative silence, that we should fear changing tax rates in a time of economic crisis, even when economists of all stripes tell us that tax cuts for the wealthy offer extraordinary cost and zero benefit to the nation. He speaks most passionately not while lambasting a Republican Party that would drown the middle class on behalf of the wealthy, but when criticizing the left for not offering support at a time when he doesn't deserve it.


Update 3: About "Hopey" and "Changey"
I am not apologizing for, nor withdrawing my use of Palins "hopey" and "changey." However I do try to explain it -- why it's potential resonance with working and middle classs American is a sad but understandable outcome of the lack of Obama adminstration progressive populism -- in this comment thread.


Update 4: In response to Reagan era taxes discussion:

I would argue that what the Reaganomic conservative plutocracy wanted, and what they got, was tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate, and deregulation and lack of oversight of industry and wall street, and weakening of labor and working people' rights.

At the end of the day, even after the midstream congressionally initiated "fixes" that Reagan agreed, the plutocracy got everything they really wanted including taxes: lower rates on high incomes, lower rates for capital gains and unearned income.  To the extent that Federal taxes were raised it was regressively primarily on payroll deduction, and disproportionately hitting working class, middle income and in due course even on the upper middle (salaried) class.  At the end of Reagan, and even Reagan-Bush I, the effective rates for the top X% (20%, 10%, 5%, 2%, 1%, 0.1%) were way lower; and for corporations too.  Add to that the deregulation, lack of enforcement and oversight, and cutting labor rights, and it hard to see how they did not get what they wanted.

As to "size of government" or the deficit... that was never a real concern, except to be used rhetorically to push the actual (see above) agenda. Indeed insofar as big government can be used to move taxpayers money to the corporate trough, they love big government.

But big picture narrative, the mantra remained government bad, taxes bad, deregulation good. Even when compromising in fact, they never wavered from the narrative, which helps explain why the narrative continued, even as its failures multiplied.

And, as a counter-point to Obama's kudos to Reagan, and Clinton-dismissal, Clinton for all his DLC neo-liberal bad stuff (and they were many) did do a few good things: did raise taxes on high end income, EITC for those at the bottom, increase in minimum wage. But did not change the overall Reagan era narrative.  Because too many of them bought into it.

Originally posted to DrSteveB on Tue Dec 21, 2010 at 06:10 AM PST.

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